City council confirms state of emergency proclamation
By Matt Nagle
Mayor Victoria Woodards held a press conference on Tuesday, March 17, to address community concerns around COVID-19 and tell of what the city is doing to help residents and businesses during this time.
Later that evening, Tacoma City Council voted to confirm the city’s March 12 state of emergency proclamation in response to the pandemic. It allows the city to waive certain contracting and budget requirements, authorizes staff to implement emergency purchasing requirements, and takes other steps in response to the emergency.
Pursuant to the City’s state of emergency proclamation, Council required the city’s power, water, sanitary sewer, storm water, and solid waste utilities to postpone shutoffs for non-payment. Council also approved the creation of an Emergency Assistance Program by Tacoma Public Utilities to allow more households to qualify for assistance. The Emergency Assistance Program is funded for up to $1 million.
Joining Woodards at the press conference were Dr. Anthony Chen, director of health at the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department, and Scott Heinze, board president of Tacoma Public Schools.
“Our paramount duty as a city is for the safety and health of our residents,” Woodards said in her opening statement. “What I want to assure Tacoma residents today is that we will get through this and we will get through this together. We wanted to call this forum today to let you know that we are working together. We are standing together and trying to provide every opportunity we can to make sure that our citizens stay safe and healthy during this time.”
To illustrate this, she mentioned the Compassionate Tacoma initiative that she announced at her State of the City address earlier this month. An effort to bring Tacomans together in love and kindness, Compassionate Tacoma calls on each and every one of us get involved to impact the lives of friends, family, neighbors and neighborhoods every day. Learn more at www.CityofTacoma.org.
“We launched it because we know that here in Tacoma, when one person is hurting, we all care,” she said. “How amazing that we would launch Compassionate Tacoma now when it’s a time for us to show our compassion.”
Chen shared some good news about those who have contracted the coronavirus. “Of our cases suffering from COVID-19, the majority of them are doing well and recovering at home,” he said. “A few are still in the hospital and several have been discharged from hospitals and that includes the first case that we announced 12 days ago.”
He stressed that the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department (TPCHD) is working closely with county and city partners to implement social distancing measures and other means to slow or stop the spread of the virus. While TPCHD has been forced to limit some services, many services are available online and the department will continue to serve permitting and vital records customers in person. Methadone treatment centers remain open and the department’s STD/HIV program is working on an alternative service plan. In addition, TPCHD is working very closely with local hospitals, health care systems and long-term care facilities on surge planning, collaborating with federal agencies and the City of Tacoma on a testing site and continuing to work closely with schools on childcare and nutrition planning.
“We are working with our city and county partners on operational plans for isolation and quarantine sites for people who cannot isolate or quarantine themselves at home,” he said, as well as the ability to get tested for COVID-19. “We know that one of the pain points for members of the community is the ability to get tested. Testing capacity is increasing as the state lab at the University of Washington continues tests and additional private labs are coming online as well.”
Chen said that 80 percent or more of the people who contract COVID-19 experience mild symptoms and recover at home. However, those who are age 60 or over, and those who have underlying health conditions, need to take extra precautions and take social distancing seriously.
“It’s also important for us to remember that those from lower socio-economic classes that are more vulnerable are more likely to become ill and die from this illness. We have to make sure that support services are available to those members of our community.”
Regarding how the virus is affecting Tacoma schools, Heinze said that Tacoma was able to get a bit of a head start on March 7 when a staff member at Mary Lyon Elementary School was diagnosed with COVID-10.
“We’ve been in a close partnership with the health department for a couple of weeks now and it gave us a head start on some of the planning,” he said.
Like Woodards and Chen, Heinze stressed the collaborative nature of how the school district is responding to the pandemic, working closely with federal and local entities, from the CDC and U.S. Department of Education to the health department.
The district is keeping the nutritional needs of the district’s 30,000 students a top priority by providing drive-thru meal pick-ups at all 10 middle schools in Tacoma.
The challenging part has been how to keep students engaged in learning while they are out of school. While an online learning platform seems like an obvious solution, not all students have access to the internet or to a device, and other students have individual education plans. To help remedy this, Superintendent Carla Santorno directed her team to put together K-12 lesson packets translated into multiple languages and post them online for families as a supplemental resource to build a structure of learning for at least the next six weeks. Some of the plans have been printed and mailed to students with no computer access.
Woodards then discussed how the city is addressing local business interests during this time, but first touched on those who pay rent for housing.
“Over 50 percent of the population in Tacoma are renters so I want to assure you that we’re looking into what we can do around evictions and we’re also talking with the state and federal government as well about what we can do about foreclosures during this time,” she said. “We want to make sure that the one thing you’re not worrying about is how you’re going to pay your rent or if you’re going to get foreclosed on. Know that we are working on that and hope to have an announcement very soon about how we’re going to address that.”
Woodards repeated several times the city’s intention to do all it can to keep worry from the minds of Tacoma business owners and non-profit organizations.
“Let’s be very clear that we are going to continue to fund (non-profit) organizations. If you haven’t been reached out to yet, please reach out to us at our Human Services Department.”
She also said that for 2021-2022 funding, the city will not be asking non-profits to submit during the competitive cycle. “If you currently receive funding from the city, you will continue to receive funding and we’ll make funding available for new organizations as well.”
She encouraged residents to support local restaurants during their closure of seating areas by ordering take-out. For other businesses that don’t have this opportunity, she said to go to www.MakeItTacoma.orgfor information like business resiliency, financial support, employer and employee resources and health and public services. The city is also working with small business development center SpaceWorks to ensure that businesses can more easily tap into the services we have available.
The city has also requested and received authority from the U.S. Economic Development Administration and the Tacoma Redevelopment Authority to plan for and set aside a portion of city loan resources for microloans to qualified small business in Tacoma. These microloans are up to $15,000, which can be used for working capital and some fixed assets to help cover some lost revenue, with deferred principal and interest payments for a period of at least six months. Find more information at www.MakeItTacoma.org. Current borrows from the city’s Economic Development Administration revolving loan fund will be allowed to defer principal and interest payments on their loans without penalty for six months.
The city will also work to remove penalties related to B&O job tax in Tacoma. Businesses that are currently taking advantage of the city’s B&O job tax credit will not be required to pay back the tax credit received prior to the tax periods if they reduce their workforce and lose eligibility. The city is also working to defer taxes from businesses paying $10,000 or less in B&O tax.
For anyone without internet access, call 311 if you have questions, or call the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) of Tacoma and Pierce County at (253) 798-7470.
“There are a lot of things that we’re working on, but what we want to make sure is that we’re giving you peace of mind to know that you can care for yourselves and your families and that we’re working out all the details,” Woodards said.